Rival Lebanese hold talks on eve of president vote

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s presidential election is unlikely to take place on Friday as planned because rival leaders have yet to finalize a political deal to make the army chief president, political sources said on Thursday.

Parliament had been due to convene on Friday to elect a president, a post vacant since November 23 when the term of pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud expired. But the lack of a deal means the vote will be put off for a 7th time, probably to next week.

The presidency is the latest focus of a power struggle between the anti-Syrian governing coalition and the opposition led by the pro-Damascus Hezbollah. General Michel Suleiman has emerged as a candidate acceptable to the rival camps.

The vote will go ahead only if the Western-backed ruling coalition and the Hezbollah-led opposition first agree on a broad power-sharing deal, including the shape of a new cabinet.

A senior political source ruled out holding the election on Friday, but was confident a deal would eventually be reached. “There is no going back,” he said.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, also an opposition leader, met anti-Syrian majority coalition leader Saad al-Hariri in the presence of French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

They continued discussions begun a day earlier on the election of Suleiman, the outline of the new government and a law for a 2009 parliamentary election.

Kouchner told reporters after the meeting: “Work continues, the meetings continue and we’ll brief you when the job is done.”

AOUN CHALLENGE

Political sources said the main obstacle to a deal was a demand by Christian opposition leader and ally of Hezbollah Michel Aoun that the next prime minister be a neutral figure.

Others in the opposition would accept a candidate named by the ruling majority.

Aoun also wants guarantees that his share of seats in the new cabinet will reflect the size of his parliamentary bloc — the biggest of any Christian faction.

Both Berri and Hariri have also yet to agree on how to amend the constitution to allow the election of Suleiman. The constitution currently bans senior public servants from running for office.

Berri wants the amendment to bypass Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, while Hariri insists any move should go through his government. The opposition says Siniora’s cabinet is not legitimate since all Shi’ite Muslim ministers left it last year.

“We insist on a political understanding before amending the constitution so that we don’t reach a state of vacuum or rift after … the election of the president,” Aoun told reporters.

Agreement on a president would defuse a political crisis that has paralyzed Lebanon for more than a year and sparked its worst internal strife since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Lebanon’s president must be a Maronite Christian, in line with a complex sectarian power-sharing system.

Suleiman, 59, had been the consensus candidate favored by the opposition. He has good ties with Hezbollah and was appointed army chief in 1998 when Syria controlled Lebanon.

The governing coalition declared its support for him on Sunday, dropping its opposition to a constitutional amendment needed to allow a senior public servant to become president.

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